Post-Communist Filmmakers Share Their Past Experiences By Barbara Hollender

in 60th Cannes Film Festival

by Barbara Hollender

This year’s festival had four entries from ex-Communist countries. The Romanian director Cristian Mungiu won a Golden Palm and Critics’ Award for his excellent 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Another Romanian movie, California Dreaming by Cristian Nemescu won in the Un Certain Regard section.

For artists from ex-Communist countries, the first dozen or so years after its fall were tough. Movie making was no longer 100 per cent state financed, and some free market measures were introduced. The artists gained freedom, but lost economic security. Additionally, they felt lost in a quickly changing world. They witnessed the fall of the old order and blindly felt their way forward in the period between the destruction of the old and the rise of the new. They waited to put some distance between themselves and those rapid changes, and the past in general.

Today East European cinematography is on the rise. The artists are now passing through a settling of accounts with the past. This point is strongly made by Cristian Mungiu’s success.

His film is modest, yet surgically precise. It is a story about a girl who, in late 80s Romania under Causescu, had an illegal abortion. Her friend helps her in arranging the deed. Both women pass through humiliation, pain, trauma — all of which are difficult to put behind them. The backdrop of the story is real life socialism — drab streets, gloomy people, a brutal receptionist at a seedy hotel, a pack of Kent cigarettes being the ultimate bribe, fear and enslavement. Mungiu sends out a warning about all forms of totalitarianism and state control which robs citizens of their privacy and takes their freedom away.

The two Russian entries were of different quality. The winner at Venice, Andriej Zviagintsev with his excellent Return, was a disappointment. His Banishment was pretentious and convoluted. I will stand up in defence of the under-appreciated film Alexandra by Alexander Sokurov. It is a film about an old Russian woman who visits her grandson in an army camp in Chechnya. The movie was accused of presenting the aggressors as victims. But this is not the theme of the work; it is more a prayer for peace. The old woman, with her grumbling and down to earth questions highlights the absurdness of war and a world run by military commands. “Boys, you’ve grown accustomed to that war, that’s a bad thing” Alexandra mutters under her breath and that – her ordinary, down to earth approach to life – is the real strength of that work.

The Cannes movies by Mungiu, Nemescu and Sokurov all make part of the general coming to terms with the past trend of post-communist cinematographers. In Berlin we saw a very interesting work by Jiri Menzel — I Served the King of England — a difficult Czech coming to terms with the 20th century. An Oscar went to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck for his The Lives of Others, a piece on invigilation in the GDR. I see artists from this part of Europe as having an enormous baggage of experiences which they are just beginning to share with the world.